Welcome to the new look.

Posted July 30, 2015 By mashaholl


And welcome to the renovation!

I must give credit for the creative push to Stasia Holl of stasiaholl.com who managed to sketch a layout in 30 seconds flat and give me a solid direction for the design.

Sometimes it takes a kick…start from one’s own daughter to get it done. The old design was getting, well, just old. It wasn’t me anymore.

Do I still like science fiction? Heck yes. I’m not getting rid of my paperback collection anytime soon. In fact, I need to add a few classics to it.

Do I still write romantic sci-fi? I sure hope so. It’s been a long dry spell, but the stories are still there.

But in a way, this iteration of the website is a return to my roots, and to my first passions, and even to passions that have never waned.tsarevna-Liagushka


Folk tales.

Folk art and design.

Folk traditions and beliefs.

Folk dress and food and music and song and…

I think you get the idea.

I am, after all, a folklore scholar by training.

Therefore my site has taken on a Khokhloma look.AAKZGtPuS5Q

What is Khokhloma? It’s a style of decorative painting and also a painting technique applied to wooden utensils and tools. It’s colorful, gold and red and black and a little green. It’s flowers and berries and leaves and geometric patterns, with the occasional bird or so. And it deserves a post all of its own.



Buckwheat (the food)

Posted June 25, 2015 By mashaholl

You’ll find it in supermarkets and grocery stores as kasha.




In Russian, the word kasha (каша) is quite a bit less specific. Kasha means any cooked grain. You could have oatmeal kasha, or cream-of-wheat kasha. Grits would be corn kasha, and cooked barley could also be kasha.

Ironically, buckwheat is not technically a grain, as it’s not a grass. It’s more closely related to beans than to wheat (I’ll leave the exact taxonomy to botanists, for us cooks the slight difference is merely amusing). In practice, it cooks pretty much the same way. And of course you can make buckwheat flour (but then you can make bean flour, and almond flour, and coconut flour… and none of them work like wheat flour… but then rye or barley flour don’t work like wheat flour either… but I digress).

So, buckwheat. I used to dislike it intensely as a child. Maybe it was because of the way Mom cooked it. Maybe it was because my childhood taste buds wouldn’t accept it. Whatever the reason — I wouldn’t eat it. And it was a big deal, because we rarely had alternatives to what was served for dinner. Not because of authoritarian rules, but because it simply wasn’t there.

Then one day I tasted buckwheat at a restaurant, and my world changed. Again, it may have been the different way it was prepared. Or my matured tastebuds. Or just the right time and place and mood and everything. But from then on I started really, really liking buckwheat.

It’s flavor isn’t mild and neutral, like cream-of-wheat or oatmeal. It’s more robust, almost nutty. It goes with every type of Russian meal and dish you could think of. As a side dish, as a filling in pastries or pasta, baked in casseroles, or simply as cereal, warmed up with a little hot milk and sweetened with sugar or honey.

It’s a universal staple.buckwheat-forms

And as some of my students discovered during their stay in Russia, it can get to be a little too much. Well, even the best desserts can become too much of a good thing.

Proper Russian buckwheat kasha is made with whole groats. What you find in American grocery stores may or may not be whole groats. It is also toasted (roasted) buckwheat, and again, you may find raw or toasted buckwheat. The preparation of buckwheat is about as complicated as the preparation of rice (hmm… I wonder… would it work in a rice maker? has anyone tried?). Some cooks like to toast buckwheat having first mixed it with a whole egg, to help keep it fluffy.

Leftover buckwheat kasha can easily be reheated, or used in one of many recipes with binders and fillers and baked in the ovenKasha: frittata-like, or in a dessert with fresh cheese. It can also be used as a filling for pirozhki (pronounce it [pee-rohzh-KEE], with a stress on the KEE), the small filled pastries similar to the Polish pierogies.

In other words, it’s a staple.

Still, if a Russian speaks of kasha, you have to wonder, what kind?


Russian Folklore: Baba Yaga

Posted June 12, 2015 By mashaholl
Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

People unfamiliar with Russian folk tales try to categorize Baba Yaga according to archetypes familiar to them from the Brothers’ Grimm collections of German fairy-tales.

And of course it doesn’t work.

Baba Yaga is not anything other than… Baba Yaga. Her name is pronounced [BAH-bah yah-GAH].

Baba Yaga is not a witch. There are witches in Russian folklore, but not in folk tales, at least not in the kind of folk tales in which you’d encounter Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga lives in the magical forest of Russian magic tales. She’s old, she’s wise (which means that she knows things unknowable to ordinary people), and like the little cabin where she lives, which stands on chicken legs, she’s magical.

Everything in the magical forest is magical. Those who live in it, whether they look like animals or like people. But whether those who live in the magical forest look, or speak, like people, only the hero of the tale is a real person. Everyone else is a magical creature.

Baba Yaga by Nicolai Kochergin

Baba Yaga by Nicolai Kochergin

So is Baba Yaga. She is “Old Woman Yaga” or “Grandma Yaga” – her name (Baba) means a bit of both. She can be helpful or she can be mean. She might give you something – a magical object, or some knowledge – that will help you along in your quest, or she might try to kill you. It doesn’t so much depend on her mood as on your behavior.

You have to have proper manners to address Baba Yaga and to get her to help you. But you also have to be in the right story. Because that’s how it goes in magic tales: the story makes the people.

If Baba Yaga doesn’t like you, she’ll chase you, riding in her mortar, pushing off with her pestle, and wiping off her trail with her broom. And she’s fast!

But never fear. By the time she gets around to chasing you, you’ll have some magical objects to throw at her, and you should be able to escape!

Baba Yaga by Otter Creations available at Etsy (click to go)

Baba Yaga by Otter Creations available at Etsy (click to go)


Царствие небесное/Rest in Peace

Posted May 7, 2015 By mashaholl

Александра Ивановна Жедилягина (Макова), урожденная Выдрина, скончалась 5го мая 2015 г. дома, во сне

Мама с нами жила 16 лет в США. Царствие ей небесное.




Alexandra Gedilaghine (Makoff), neé Vydrine, passed away in her sleep, at home, on May 5th 2015.

Mom had been living with us in the US for 16 years.

Requiescat in pace.




The Art of Tea

Posted February 26, 2015 By mashaholl

Let’s put one topic to rest. I’m not going to talk about the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I’m not qualified.

That doesn’t mean I’m not qualified to talk about tea.

I grew up drinking tea. And coffee. Well, coffee was a “grown-up” drink, bitter and something strong and to be wary of. But tea? It was the hot drink of choice. It was also the hospitality drink of choice. And the afternoon drink. And the socializing drink. And in general the all-around drink.

Hot tea, of course. I haven’t always lived in South Texas.

kupchikha 1 kustodiev

Merchant’s Wife by Kustodiev

When I was a child, we only drank plain black tea, loose leaf, sweetened, with milk or with lemon, or without. Tea with lemon and honey was the prescribed drink in case of cold or similar ailments (oatmeal cooked in water was the stomach soother). One drank tea in the afternoon from dainty tea cups on saucers. I even remember pouring tea into the saucer and drinking from the saucer when the tea was too hot.

There would be a side of homemade preserves and cookies, or if we were being extravagant, some rolls, or even pastries, from the bakery next door. French bakery. Created by a Master Baker. If there’s something I miss about Paris it’s the bakeries…

We didn’t have a samovar, but we still managed to drink our tea following the same principle: a strong base brew (like what’s in the little teapot on top of the brass samovar), topped with hot water to dilute it to taste (which is what the samovar itself holds).

Silver Samovar

Samovar. We have one just like it.


Moroccan Tea

I discovered green tea in Morocco. Hot green tea, surprisingly refreshing when flavored with a good handful of fresh mint, and sweetened with lump sugar, in spite of the North-African heat. Tea was everywhere, served in special glasses, colored or gilded, and from a fat-bellied brass teapot. I still love green tea with mint. And no dried mint leaves, not combination of tea bags will even approximate the flavor of loose green leaf tea with just-picked mint.

2015-02-25 15.21.23

Also known as Earl Grey (Bergamot-flavored)

My grandmoter always served Earl Grey. She added a dash of fresh-squeezed orange juice to the bergamot-flavored tea. I hadn’t discovered the delight of unsweetened tea yet, so of course sugar was de rigueur. As was her special lattice-top apple pie.

It was a British blend of Earl Grey, not the Royal Tea we have today. We only discovered it recently, and it’s become our favorite bergamot-flavored (i.e. Earl Grey) tea.

I spent all my middle- and high-school vacations with my friends in Germany (my Russian emigre friends), and they had their own version of the non-Samovar tea recipe. A large thermal carafe of hot water, and a pot of strong tea, timed with the German meal times of late lunch/early dinner of hearty rye bread and cold cuts. Or an afternoon tea with cookies or pastries or a fruit tart, and friends.

Tea for breakfast, of course. You only drank coffee in desperation in Germany, if you were used to French coffee. Seriously.

So there was always an interesting selection of teas at my friends’ houses — flavored teas, with blackberry and rose and vanilla (not my favorite), and tea varietals (Lapsang Souchong and Assam and Darjeeling). We even drank tea during our teenage all-nighters of debating life, the universe, and everything.Teacup&Cookies

In England, I discovered the miraculous healing properties of strong black tea with milk and sugar. One woke up with tea. One had “white” (that is, with milk) tea at break time. One had tea if one was upset, sick, homesick, visiting, or even just because.

To this day, if I need a pick-me-up, I turn to absurdly strong black tea with cream and sweetener (sugar is out these days).

I do drink coffee. Espresso, lattes, Turkish coffee, French-press coffee, and lately we’ve been having fun with our one-cup coffee pods.

But nothing compares with a carefully brewed cup of loose-leaf tea. Which is why I am drinking some Sun Moon Lake Assam tea from Taiwan right now. A gift from my world-traveling daughter.

2015-02-25 15.22.36

Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea



When the Legend is More Fun

Posted February 3, 2015 By mashaholl


The Matryoshka doll looks like a mystical representation of life and happiness: nested within each other, successions of smiling, healthy women depict the stages of life — or the generations of a family. From the largest and most detailed to the tiny swaddled baby, they are incomprehensively fascinating.

I used to play with them. We always had at least one set at home, usually several, as guests visiting from Russia brought them as hostess gifts — or rather as hostess’-child’s gifts. I’m not sure what my imagination conjured up back then, but I do know that nesting and unnesting them had a manic fascination for me.

And continues to have. There’s something hypnotic to the traditional six (or five, or seven, or…) little dolls that fit into each other.

For the longest time, the legend that the Matryoshka was a representation of a feminine deity of fecundity prevailed. The belief that the neverending women’s cycle of life-bearing was represented by the fraction of fractal which seems to invite the mind to multiply the nesting up and down and sideways — the way families and clans grow.

Even Wikipedia will tell you that it’s not true. The Matryoshka doll was created… as a tourist lure.


Fukuruma nesting dolls

Yes, a trinket. A commercial product. Something to ride the fad of the “Russian Style” alongside dolls in various regional folk costumes.

The original concept is Japanese and seems to be a nesting-doll representation of the Japanese Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods, with Fukurokuju (god of happiness, wealth, and longevity)  as the largest and outer doll.

It doesn’t really matter anymore. Each of them has taken on a life of its own. The Matryoshka has become the quintessential image of (kitchy/cute) Russian culture, and the Fukurokuju dolls have remained in Japan.

A Doll of Many Faces

The Russian nesting dolls has taken on a new life in modern times. From the original variations on the woman-in-kerchief design, it has morphed first into political and satyrical novelties, and from then it moved into the realm of pop culture.

Political Matryoskha

And from there it crossed borders and oceans and became a favorite design element everywhere. Fabric patterns, Christmas ornaments… One thing it lost in those border crossings is the vibrancy of the original colors, the bold reds and the golds, the bright blues and greens.

Still, there’s something about a traditional matryoshka, no matter her coloring, that makes you smile and want to hug her. Regardless of your age or opinion.

And that makes both the original myth of the “creation-doll” and of the “traditional ancient Russian toy” more fun than the historical facts.

I never thought I’d say that.


Matryoshka Novelty Purse (Etsy)


Real Cooking

Posted January 25, 2015 By mashaholl

A post by a blogger I like to follow spurred me to write my own.

Should you bother making things from scratch?

I had to re-read the question to “get” what I was seeing. Because for me, cooking, real cooking, is cooking from scratch.

In fact, growing up, all I knew what cooking from scratch.

Oh sure, there were a few ingredients that were allowed in canned or dried, or otherwise preseved — but those were ingredients that you wouldn’t think of as “prepared”. Things like canned tomato paste, or canned beans. I mean, we lived in apartments. Tiny European apartments. If we’d been living in a “proper” house with cellar and real strorage space, you can bet your fortune my Mother would have been canning and preserving everything in sight, and we’d have had a huge, overflowing garden.


Because. That’s just the way it was done. Food not from scratch wasn’t real food. After all, Mom was born and grew up in a village, where not-from-scratch things were simply not available.

On the other hand, I also grew up in France, and when I decided I had to learn to bake bread (why? well, I was curious, so because), Mom’s reaction was that I shouldn’t waste my time when we had so many amazingly good bakeries owned and run by master bakers all around us.

France. Paris. Bread. Croissants. Pastries. Sigh

Still, I did try and eventually I learned. Because it’s fun.

Cooking from scratch is a necessary skill if you want to cook proper ethnic food, and of course we did. Fancy Russian dishes for the holidays, and mostly Russian, or Russianized food any other day. Actually, it was more like Russianized food à la Française — with French cheese and French bread, and of course French wine, and often in the proper French order of courses. Something like that definitely requires knowledge of from-scratch cooking.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t a universal, inborn skill until college. Until I tried to teach some fellow students how to cook Russian food from scratch. Until I told them to peel some carrots and they looked at me as if I’d told them to go build a bridge from here to the moon.


Up until then, I thought that everybody knew how to cook from scratch, just like everybody knew how to pull on their pants or put a foot in front of the other to take a step.


Amazing how deluded you can be when you grow up in a tight-knit, but rather insular community.

Amazing, too, the things you didn’t know — but that’s a story for another time.

Still, I’m not a chef. There’s no way I could manage a restaurant, and I have no desire to do so. And I have no desire to be obligated to know ingredients I have no interest in that might be on the curriculum of a cooking school.

No, definitely not a chef. Not even remotely.

I’m not even as good, in some ways, as my aunt was, who could truly cook from scratch. Catch the chicken in the backyard… and go from there. She did grow her vegetables in her home garden, and fruit, and canned and dried things…

There wasn’t much time for that in the life of a scholar. And there was always Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart doesn’t carry MY ethnic ingredients… and I’m back to learning to make things from scratch. Not as a challenge, but because I like authentic flavors and I like mixing and chopping and making kitchen chemistry experiments with spices and thickeners and long lists of ingredients.

Pre-cooked food all tastes the same. Mine never does. But it always tastes like home and makes everybody around the table happy.

Forget all the other reasons. Cook from scratch for the fun of it, because it’s tasty, and because it brings everybody to the table.



Spring Semester

Posted January 14, 2015 By mashaholl

WriterPropsIt’s called that. It’s starting tomorrow for some, has sarted for others, and my first day is Thursday.

Back in Wisconsin where I attended grad school, it was most definitely a convention. January — barely out of Christmas season, snow everywhere, temperatures way below freezing, slippery sidewalks, and the occasional blizzard. The latest I actually remember seeing snow fall was May 10.

Now I also experienced snow in July in the Northern Hemisphere — but that was in the Alps, on the north side, at a reasonable altitude. Snow falling in town, on the plains, on May 10? Suddenly I understood a whole new aspect of my culture (Russian winters and all that).

Now in South Texas, Spring Semester is still a convention. January can be cold (it is this year — for relative degrees of cold, considering that it’s not freezinInTheGardeng, but it’s quite uncomfortable to go outside in shorts and without a sweatshirt, and we have the heat on, not the A/C). But January can also be warm. Sit-outside-and-bask-in-the-sun warm. Or it could be hot. Switch the A/C and hide from the blazing apocalyptic sun hot (100F has been recorded in January in past years).

“Spring” is a convention that comes from balmy climates where the year might actually be divided fairly equally into 4 seasons. As it is in France, where I grew up. Well, except in Paris, where you have to guess at the weather beyond the Parisian Basin-and-weather-trash-pit where all the dark clouds and rain get dumped.

Seriously, I was misled growing up in the mild Oceanic climate of France about the seasons. Spring was a rise to summer — colors bursting, temperatures increasing gently. Summer was a vacation place — warm and forgiving, school-free, all outdoors, with cool evenings to offset an occasional hot day. Fall was the reverse of spring — a fall to winter, temperatures falling and rain increasing, sleet appearing, occasional snow at higher elevations. Cold enough that playing outside wasn’t all that inviting anymore, and so school wasn’t too horrible to contemplate. And winter was the opposite of summer: cold and windy, but often sunny enough to lure you outside during the few hours of daylight.

Then I discovered the ephemeral springs of the American Midwest, and the sudden blaze of glorious fall, and in-between the long, harsh winter and the hot, humid summer.  Springs barely long enough to be noticed and a fall too short for its colors to be properly enjoyed.

Does spring really exist?

And yet what else would you call this semester except “Spring”?

Back in Wisconsin, it was a difficult semester because the rising temperatures pulled everybody outside when would-be and real scholars should be at their desks perusing arcane documents.

Here in Texas… Well, it’s not much of a difference from winter, and then it gets hot.

But for some reason, even though South Texas is one of those year-round regions of the world where most years, any month is a good month for some kind of outdoor activity (hot? never too hot to swim; cold? never too cold for a hike), the spring semester still manages to bring out the dreaded Cabin Fever.

The spring semester isn’t any longer than the fall semester. I know. I just finished my syllaby, broken up by weeks of activities, so really, it’s the same length. Same amount of contact-hours. Same number of weeks. Same exams, same everything.

It should flow just like a fall semester.

But it doesn’t.

It always seems longer.

It always seems to  s t r e t c h  on forever.

It’s an illusion. But it’s one everybody seems to suffer.

Kulich — traditional Russian Easter bread.


It’s also the semester of Mardi Gras and Easter and sweets and special foods and celebration. It’s the semester of Spring Break. It’s the semester before Summer, and for many, it’s the semester before graduation.

Maybe it seems longer because there’s more going on. Who knows. I like to keep it as the Mystery of the Spring Semester.



Ideal Body? Really?

Posted November 7, 2014 By mashaholl

Unsurprisingly, I have issues with the concept of the “ideal body shape.”

It’s not quite what you think, though. There are many ideals. As many as there are ages. And clothes. Or un-clothes. And settings. Or circumstances. Or…

Well, you know already I’m all about Story, and Story is dynamic, so it’s no wonder that my concept of “ideal body shape” is also a dynamic one.

It’s not about static perfection. It’s not about measurements. It’s not about fashion. It’s about feeling good, happy, and right. It’s about having someone feel good, happy, and right about you. It’s about reasonable expectations and reasonable outcomes. It’s relative. And it’s in motion. It’s about grace and personality and behavior and smile and energy and empathy…

Well, I haven’t made up my mind about the article that prompted this post, so I’ll let you read it and decide for yourself:

These Women Are Showing Victoria’s Secret What a “Perfect Body” Really Looks Like

But the main image certainly had me reading it.

I have even bigger issues with slogans and buzz words, so “empowering” doesn’t do anything for me.

But the bunch of “friends” in the Dear Kate underwear company ad (that was my first assessment of the image) contrasted sharply with the “look alikes” of the Victoria’s Secret ad.

Usually, my reactions to Victoria’s Secret ads are 1) This won’t fit me; 2) Hmmm… interesting composition… oh wait… nah, nothing I want to learn. 3) How can I tease my husband with a catalog.

This time, in contrast to the Dear Kate models, my reaction was “OMG, they’re all the same and just skin and bones!”

Whereas the Dear Kate ad made me think “They look happy and comfy!” and “I’d love to be their friend.” Which, I’m sure, is a reaction the ad makers would approve of.

So what is a Perfect Body (TM)?

If it’s one defined by measurements (girth and height and weight), then all the “rabid” feminists are right and all the romance writers might as well give up: women are objects to men (gynoids will do just as well as long as they can feel lifelike).

But if there’s more to it, and perfection and ideal are dynamic concepts, variables dependent on subtle and indescribable factors, then romance writers know best: love is the best measurement, happiness the best yardstick, and feeling well is more important than fitting a set of parameters.


Hard-Copy Skills

Posted August 8, 2014 By mashaholl

I don’t have a GPS in my car.

No, I’m not a snob. In fact, I have a weakness for gadgets and electronic toys. My latest acquisition is a tablet, and I love it. Also my e-reader. I would love to have an embroidery sewing machine that I could interface with my computer. And…

Well, you get the idea. Electronics are not my enemy.

And yet, I’m perversely happy that I never had to decide whether I wanted a GPS in my car or not. I don’t have a smartphone, either, so I don’t even have that kind of GPS navigator.

Because I have to look at actual maps to find out how to get from Point A to Point B.

Oh sure, I use Google Maps, but it’s more of a convenience and a shortcut than anything. I still look at the map, figure out where north and south is, how close to a straight line I can keep between A and B — regardless of the map’s algorithm.

Because it’s all nerdy fun. And because it fuels my imagination.

When we switch to electronics entirely, we lose something of our connection to the past, to those skills that brought about the existence of GPS systems and other electronic finders.

Like card catalogs.

Do I want to go back to standing in front of the daunting rows of tiny filing drawers full of reference cards for a three-million-plus-volume library?


But having done it gives me a certain insight into the organization of the library, and the logic of the cataloging system, that an online search result doesn’t have. I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s because online searches are so much faster and taken for granted — after all, very few of us know how to administer, much less set up, a database.

But there are other skills.

One could live an entire life today without ever touching a stove, just with a microwave, and pre-cooked and semi-cooked meals. One doesn’t really need to know how to cook from scratch anymore, does one?

What a pity. Because my favorite dishes are not available at the supermarket. And if you’ve never tasted food cooked on an open fire, you’ve missed out on a culinary experience. Not every flavoring and spice comes in a jar.

One could also live without ever touching a needle or buying thread. Clothes are so cheap and disposable, who needs to sew and mend? I know how to mend and darn, but I agree that it’s not worth darning sports socks nowadays. But not ever sewing? I mean, even just sewing on a loose button is a satisfying experience, and you could easily envision your pioneer ancestor sitting in her log cabin making clothes for the family.

Or cooking a stew in a Dutch oven — even if the heat is provided by an electric stove. Is that the pot that your great-grandmother used? It could be (mine isn’t, but it looks just the same).

My computer and keyboard definitely are a big help to writing, and making pictures, and corresponding with friends and relatives, much more easily than if I’d had to use pen and paper and send everything by old-fashioned (snail) mail. My letters always got stuck on my desk somewhere between the salutation and the actual dropping of them in the mail slot. Freud probably would have had a field day with this issue.

Now? I just press <enter>.

But you know what? I miss the dip pen and smooth paper I learned to write on, and the requirement for a neat space on my desk, and the attendant accessories, like blotter paper and nibs and colored inks.

Maybe I should…

Nah. Not this time. I’ll give in to modernity and hug my computer. We understand each other.